Bullying has been increasingly recognized as a serious problem for children and adolescents over the past several decades.  While once mistakenly written off as a normal, even necessary, part of growing up, psychological research has documented the serious and damaging effects that severe or chronic bullying can have on a youth’s emotional, mental and physical well-being.  Chronically bullied children can become depressed, exhibit school refusal behaviors, begin bullying other peers themselves, and even become suicidal or develop other severe psychological problems.  A little teasing now and then may be extremely common and relatively innocuous for most school-aged children, but for a significant percentage of them – as many as a third according to numerous studies – bullying can become severe and chronic enough to begin causing serious harm. 

A recent large study surveyed 4,300 children in fifth, seventh and 10th grades about bullying and their mental well-being.  This research reinforced what many prior studies have reported; that bullying is extremely common and is frequently associated with reduced mental and emotional well-being and lower self-esteem.  However an additional layer was added to our understanding of the toll bullying can take on youth.  The study found that even once chronic bullying stopped, the negative effects on children’s’ mental and physical well-being lingered.  The more chronic and longer-lasting the bullying, the worse the damaging effects, even if the bullying had stopped.  As one of the researches involved in the study noted, “the effects of bullying compound over time, and it’s important to catch it early.”

But what can be done to help?  One important avenue to combat bullying which the article noted is the importance of bystanders stepping in when they notice bullying occur.  The reluctance of uninvolved persons to jump in and help someone in need is such a well-known phenomenon that it has its own name: the bystander effect.  Educating youth about bullying and empowering them to take a stand can help snuff out the social conditions which allow bullying to thrive.  Bullying can be seen as a systemic problem, in that it takes a number of factors working in concert to allow bullying to flourish: the youth involved themselves, the bystanders who sit by and do nothing, school administrators who fail to implement or enforce anti-bullying policies, and teachers who do not intervene or advocate on behalf of bullied students.  All facets of this system must change to effectively reduce bullying.

One potential area of support which this recent article did not mention is the importance of supportive teachers who form caring relationships with their students.  Research my students and I conducted has demonstrated that caring teacher-student relationships can help alleviate some of the negative effects of bullying.  Teachers can become tremendous and crucial allies in the fight against chronic school bullying.

What can parents do to help?  The most beneficial thing you can do for your child is to be a good listener.  Supportive and caring parent-child relationships are often cited as the single biggest protective factor against the damaging effects of severe bullying.  Likewise, aggressive or negative parental communication has been linked to increased bullying behaviors in their children.  Another way parents can help battle bullying is by enlisting the support and assistance of their child’s teachers.  Oftentimes teachers may be unaware of the existence or extent of a bullying problem, but once alerted can pay closer attention and intervene when necessary.  For a child being victimized by severe bullying, knowing they have trusted allies and advocates both at school and at home can make all the difference in the world.

Be well,

Dr. Stephanie